Pretentious Glass and Beer Company, 131 and 133 South Central, Knoxville, August 2021
For a business to survive a decade, a lot of things have to go right. The product or service has to be good; the right person or people have to be behind it, and a thousand small variables along the way have to fall in place, many of them out of anyone’s control. You might think a good business plan is also a necessary element. When I mentioned that, owner Matthew Cummings laughed. A vision? Yes. A plan to get there? Not as much.
Matthew started the business as a side hustle ten years ago while living in Louisville. A surprise mention on Huffington Post made sales of his signature beer glasses explode and overnight the side hustle seemed to have its own trajectory that has brought the business through growth that reads like a fairy tale, though one with plenty of hundred-hour weeks along the way.
The business started as a one-man show. Matthew says he would be at the post office each day waiting for them to be open to ship his orders. He would leave there and “blow glass all day. I would take a break for dinner . . . then take the work from the day before and” box and label them until about midnight. “Then I would come home and send emails for a couple of hours.”
He did that for several months. “I was younger then. In my head I was in my twenties, but I started the business on my thirtieth birthday.” He eventually added an employee to help with shipping. “My growth plan was when I physically couldn’t do it anymore. When I hit a hundred hours a week and still couldn’t get it done . . . I didn’t have an expansion plan other than to work more.”
He started training glassblowers to help him make some of the glasses as he worked out of a community shop in Louisville. By the time he moved to Knoxville he had two employees and had started to formulate an idea of how he would like to see the business grow. They had to travel to Asheville and other cities to blow their glass while they frantically tried to assemble the equipment they would need for a large operation in Knoxville.
“We’d rent time out of the Greenwood shop (now called the North Carolina Glass Center) and other shops. “That was before there was a lot of things to do in Knoxville, so we would go to Asheville quite a bit. And then it’s like a treat with the food and the beer scene. So, we would go up and probably make $800 worth of glasses but spend a thousand dollars in the bars and restaurants over a week. It wasn’t a very lucrative endeavor.
The two original employees have moved on to other opportunities, while Alex Greenwood, with whom Matthew had become friends while both attended the Appalachian Center for Crafts in 2005, eventually came to work with Matthew at Pretentious. They’d planned the move for two years to start in April 2020. It was a crazy time, but Alex came, and it all worked out well.
Matthew and his wife moved to Knoxville in the middle of 2014. They started blowing glass in their current location July 4, 2015. Matthew says he will always remember the date because he was in Louisville celebrating the 4th (and his dad’s birthday which is that day) and at 10:00 pm that night he got a call saying the brand new furnace had crashed. He drove back to Knoxville, arriving at 1:00 am to get the furnace back online.
He recalls the difficulty of getting approvals, indicating the City of Knoxville is more friendly and helpful with founders than they were at the time. They required UL listing for all their equipment “which is unheard of in the glass world.” They lost two months on their opening date and spent about $30,000 on the requirement. The certification visit alone cost $12,000 and was pass or fail and if you failed you started over. After a tense day, Matthew had to make a run for additional electrical warning labels. “I was completely financially exhausted at that point.”
On his return he didn’t see the certifying engineer. His coworker looked despondent. “We didn’t pass.” He lost it. “We’re done.” Then the engineer popped out from behind a door and the two said, “We got you!” They did pass and were able to open.
He feels they have been able to accomplish their vision. “It’s a lot more fun than I ever imagined, but also harder than I ever imagined.” He said the “to do” list is never ending with so many moving parts for each of the businesses.
The businesses have multiplied. Pretentious Tap Room opened in September 2016 and Pretentious Beer was first on tap on New Year’s Eve 2017. It took a full year to get the approvals and get the beer brewed. They expanded the variety of beers they made. In 2022 they got the canning machine to begin canning their beer to be able to expand distribution. They’ve now narrowed their focus. Matt personally designed 22 beer labels, each of which took upwards of twenty hours. They also added food from Hong’s Kitchen
While they have had a few spots carry their beer from the beginning, such as A Dopo pizza, they are now expanding their reach. They have made good inroads, for example, in the Nashville market through contacts there. Next up, Matthew said, they will be looking to enter national competitions to build their reputation and get good feedback to “improve our craft.”
For the future, in addition to always improving their beer, he said the plan for the glass is to narrow their designs down to a smaller group and focus on those. They will change regularly and have limited runs be more exclusive. He wants every design to really shine. Additionally, he says they will “give more love to wine glasses, whiskey glasses, and cocktail sets. We just launched Japanese style cocktail mixers in December. They were crazy popular. We haven’t been able to make them fast enough.” They will also offer more home goods, such as vases.
He also surprised me by saying a big focus for him in the new year will be music, by which he meant his own. He’s marketing himself as Yeah-Lo and offers a one-man show in which he programs all the bass, drums and other instruments and plays keyboards. He showed me his extensive set-up and admitted he didn’t know how to play keyboards before. He describes it as instrumental hip-hop “with some funk, and synth wave, lo-fi. Literally just music to make people happy and dance a little bit.” You can catch his first performance Friday night at the beginning of the weekend celebration of the tenth anniversary.
Saturday is the main day for the celebration. For the event, he’s brought back a very limited run of his original glasses made without a mold and those will be for sale. He says it will include some of his “duals,” the two-sided glass that “made me go viral.” There will be glass Olympics through the day, which are “completely ridiculous glass competitions.” There will also be special demos, including one where they may make “an enormous beer glass.” Around 9:00 a winner will be announced for the raffle of a full set of glasses.
Come out and join the fun, while raising a glass to one of downtown’s most unique businesses as they celebrate their decade of business.